Stonehearst Asylum (Movie Review)

Stonehearst Asylum (Movie Review)
7 10

PLOT: A recent med school grad (Jim Sturgess) in London circa 1900, is posted to a remote asylum where he's bewitched by a seductive patient (Kate Beckinsale). However, he soon discovers there's more to the asylum and its chief doctor (Ben Kingsley) than meets the eye.

REVIEW: For me, the most interesting thing about STONEHEARST ASYLUM (formerly titled ELIZA GRAVES) is the fact that it's directed by Brad Anderson. One of the great, unheralded genre directors, Anderson should have become an A-lister following THE MACHINIST, but has often taken on lower-key genre films like VANISHING ON 7TH STREET or THE CALL. STONEHEARST ASYLUM has more in common with his earlier, more idiosyncratic films like TRANSIBERIAN, and while imperfect, it is nonetheless a pretty efficient little period thriller.

Loosely based on the Edgar Allen Poe story "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether", STONEHEARST ASYLUM is bolstered by an exceptionally strong cast, which lends some three-dimensionality to what could have been a typical tale where literally "the lunatics end up running the asylum." Within ten minutes or so it's revealed that Ben Kingsley's Dr. Lamb is an impostor, having led the inmates in a coup imprisoning the staff, led by Michael Caine's Dr. Salt, in the dungeons below the asylum. The crux of the movie is that Sturgess' conscientious Dr. Newgate has to somehow restore order while protecting Beckinsale's Eliza, with whom he naturally falls in love with at first sight (who could blame him?).

Jim Sturgess always makes for a sympathetic protagonist, and he conveys a believable amount of compassion in the part, even if it seems a bit unreal that a doctor would so quickly find himself entranced by a patient, even if she happens to look like Beckinsale. Luckily, there's a reasonable explanation for this that comes later on and makes the point somewhat moot. As for Beckinsale, at first I was scratching my head as to why she would take on such a generic part where she's more or less window dressing, but as the film goes on Eliza becomes more of a heroine in her own right. That said, Beckinsale is so sympathetic in the part it denies the film any mystery over whether or not Eliza is as innocent as she seems. It might have worked better if she had played the part a little more aloof, but nevertheless she's warm, likable, and of course absolutely stunning to look at (luckily her asylum wardrobe offers plenty of corsets and plunging necklines).

The film benefits most strongly from the presence of Ben Kingsley, who makes for a terrific antagonist, with the script allowing him to remain largely sympathetic throughout. An early scene featuring a cameo by Brendan Gleeson makes it clear that nineteenth century English treatment of the mentally ill was anything but compassionate, and next to the cruel head doctor, played by Michael Caine (in a relatively small part), he seems like a relatively benign figure. Kingsley seems to relish the part, chewing scenery with aplomb, and clearly delighting in a juicy scene where he gets to torture Caine, who's strapped to an old medical gurney.

It's a bit of a surprise that STONEHEARST ASYLUM is getting such a low-key release, as it's not a bad little genre film, with some nice production design and a classy score by composer John Debney (a regular of co-producer Mel Gibson). While it's not especially terrifying, it's a fun, affectionate throwback to an older kind of horror movie - the kind someone like Val Lewton would have produced back in the forties (it actually has a lot in common with his 1946 film BEDLAM). It's definitely worth checking out, and Sturgess, Beckinsale, Kingsley and Caine are always worth watching.



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